President Donald Trump has little love for the traditional media. His latest statements on “fake news” repeat familiar themes about what he perceives as media bias. But some observers see a threat to the First Amendment in the president’s suggestion that outlets should be shut down.
This brouhaha started with the president tweeting, “With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!” He followed up with another tweet, saying, “Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!” Then he went on to say to reporters that “It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write and people should look into it.”
President Trump is clearly upset with how some media figures discuss him and his policies during news programs. However, there is little he can do to shut down a network like NBC. Most stations that broadcast NBC news (or other network news) are locally owned. Their licenses can be challenged, but it would essentially be impossible to revoke a license due to someone disliking the content of the news reporting. The Federal Communication Commission, which regulates broadcast networks, is an independent agency that is not directly under the control of the president.
Even though it appears that TV licenses are safe, the president’s words worry many people. They say that it is dangerous for an elected official to suggest shutting down media outlets because he or she is upset with news coverage. Courts have consistently held that the First Amendment protects speech that is critical of politicians. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican, tweeted “Words spoken by the President of the United States matter. Are you tonight recanting of the oath you took on January 20th to preserve, protect, and defend the First Amendment?”
While there is little chance that the FCC will revoke licenses based on news reporting, there is precedent for the agency regulating how broadcasters present controversial issues. The agency once imposed a rule, known as the “Fairness Doctrine,” that required broadcasters to present controversial issues in a way that the government deemed balanced. From 1949 to 1987, the federal government monitored broadcast media content on controversial issues. FCC commissioners voted unanimously to revoke the rule in 1987.
There have been efforts through the years to reinstate this federal “fairness” mandate. In the past, President Reagan vetoed legislation that would re-impose the Fairness Doctrine. More recently the issue has been pushed by Democrats, with party leaders like Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Dick Durbin expressing support. However, some Democrats, such as Barack Obama, have opposed efforts to revive the Fairness Doctrine. It remains to be seen if the Trump White House will take up this old FCC rule as a way to battle what it perceives as unbalanced treatment by the news media.
Do you support a federal rule that would require broadcast news to strive for “balance”? Or do you think that news reports should be free from government control?